March 2006 | Sujata Agrawal

A never-ending journey

JJ Irani, as chairman of Tata Quality Management Services, is piloting the group's business excellence initiative across Tata companies

Since 1994, when he was given the mandate by Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Sons, to institutionalise quality in the Tata group, JJ Irani has focused his efforts on making quality central to the companies' businesses.

In his quest for quality, Mr Irani's inspiration has been JRD Tata, of whom he says: "JRD Tata had a passion for detail. He never accepted second best and was always seeking better ways to perform even an ordinary task."

Mr Irani shares his experiences on "a journey that has no end" with Sujata Agrawal.

JJ Irani

The purpose of business is to create value for customers; job satisfaction and career advancement for employees; surpluses for expansion and upgradation; profits for investors and development for the economy. What is the role of quality in this equation? How does quality pay?
Quality is not an "add-on" for companies. Quality must be in the DNA of an organisation; it must be inherent in all activities of a company and its employees. Without quality an organisation cannot survive and there cannot be any advancement for employees or surpluses for the organisation.

A fairly large number of Tata companies now implement the Tata Business Excellence Model and vie for the JRD QV Award. What are the initiatives TQMS is taking to implement TBEM?
I would like to believe that for Tata companies the award is secondary and that they implement TBEM to improve their business practices and attain business excellence.

TBEM is a never-ending journey. The JRD QV Award only recognises a particular milestone [the TBEM score of 600+] but there are several more milestones along the journey to excellence which encourage companies to reach that particular goal.

TQMS plays the role of a facilitator in this journey. It guides and advises companies, helping them in demystifying and implementing the model. The people at TQMS work in different areas such as designing assessment processes, training assessors and sharing best practices. Their efforts have helped build a network of mentors, assessors and quality champions in the group.

The criteria for TBEM changed in 2002. What was the reason for the change and has this made any difference to its implementation in Tata companies?
Like any other process, the guidelines for TBEM have to be reviewed and changed for the better, if there is a need. The Tata group adopted TBEM in 1994 and the criteria has been adjusted and tweaked from time to time in response to the changing business environment to ensure that the process continues to meet current requirements.

Tata Steel was the first company to win the JRD QV Award, when you were heading it. Tell us how you did it.
Indian industries were operating in a protective environment till 1990. Post liberalisation, it became apparent that Tata Steel had a lot to learn in terms of business excellence. We realised that our profitability and success in the international world of steel depended on the way we did our business and how efficiently we could perform in the international arena. That was when we adopted the Malcolm Baldrige system much before TBEM was introduced in the Tata group.

Initially we faced a few problems and our scores were in the 200-300 point range. We then decided to take the process more seriously and consciously worked towards improving our processes in all the subgroups of the Malcolm Baldrige system. We rolled it out through the company, down to the last employee, and made this movement a part of our improvement programme.

It took us nearly a decade to pass the 600-point mark in 2000. I clearly recall Mr Tata's comments when he gave us the award: "If someone had asked me 10 years back, which was the company in the group least likely to win the JRD QV Award, I would have answered Tata Steel!"

Only three Tata companies have won the JRD QV Award so far. Are there some areas that companies find difficult to implement?
The TBEM process is now well established in the Tata group. It has seven categories that companies need to address and there is no one area that is more or less difficult than the others. Each company has its own strengths and weaknesses in different areas.

Though only three companies have passed the 600-mark milestone, there are several others in the 500+ points region. I am sure that they will also be passing the 600-point milestone soon which, as I have said earlier, is just a milestone in a never-ending journey towards excellence.

Is it more difficult for smaller companies in the group to get the award?
Not at all. In fact it is more difficult for the larger companies as they have a greater geographical and human span to cover. It is certainly harder to implement processes in a larger group than it is in a smaller one.

Isn't there a danger that companies may concentrate on getting the award to the neglect of their basic business?
There is no possibility of that happening. Companies who apply TBEM in their daily business activities have realised that the two are inter-related. One cannot be done without the other. As they go forward with the process their business gets positively impacted.

Are there any instances where a company that does not implement TBEM still turns out an outstanding financial performance?
I am not aware of any such instances.

Recently, the Malcolm Baldrige Award included a new category for non-profit organisations. Is there a proposal to include corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives as a category in the JRD QV Award?
Yes, there is a proposal to include CSR initiatives in the JRD QV Award process. We are working on it and a pilot study has been done with one or two companies. We are hopeful that in the next year, 2006-07, CSR will be included in the evaluation process.

What is your vision for the future of the Tata group's quality initiatives?
Quality initiatives are here to stay. Tata companies have made a lot of progress since we began the journey in 1994, and the attitude towards quality has been transformed as far as this group is concerned.

I am sure that all Tata companies who have signed up for the TBEM process, and others who are in the process of doing so, realise that TBEM is only a manifestation of what the group has been doing for the last 100 years and more, and will continue to address it in the future.

There is always scope to improve and change as the outside environment is constantly changing, and we have to keep up with it, and preferably initiate or lead the change where we can. I believe that best practices have to be shared and not kept under cover. Learnings do not come from big companies or senior management alone. However small a company may be or however insignificant individuals might feel, they always have something to contribute.

The role of the CEO and his immediate leadership team is critical in flagging off the journey and in maintaining the momentum. Companies must stick to the regime and at no time give up, because quality has to be pursued all the time and at every opportunity.